Each year, on the first day of classes, I pull up the rosters to try to pronounce my students’ names before they rush into my classroom. I don’t want to be put on the spot, but inevitably I mess up the pronunciation of at least one student’s name, and I feel terrible. The students whose names I mispronounce usually just smile and laugh it off, correcting me or offering an Anglicized version to avoid further pronunciation mishaps. They seem used to it. I’m not surprised. It must happen every year in almost every class.
Once, after struggling with a student’s name, I asked him if I had pronounced it correctly. He just shrugged and said, “It doesn’t matter.” I assured him that it does indeed matter. Names are personal and reflect our identity and culture. It is important to get them right. For this reason, I prefer not to use nicknames or Anglicized versions. No students should be ashamed of their names because their teachers can’t, or won’t bother to, learn to pronounce them correctly.
At a conference I went to last year, I spoke with a teacher about the subject of names. He said that he was getting sick of students who had hyphenated last names. He seemed proud of himself when he said that he tells students at the beginning of the year to pick one name. “I have so many students with one name that I can barely remember,” he said. “How am I supposed to remember two?” I told him that I kept my last name when I got married, and that my future children will have a hyphenated last name. I explained that it would be unfair and disrespectful for a teacher to tell my child to choose one name over the other.
Unfortunately, based on the number of students who good-naturedly correct my mispronunciations, who prefer to go by a nickname, or who have shortened their hyphenated last names, I believe my students have more often than not encountered teachers who can’t be bothered to learn their names. It didn’t really surprise me, then, that Hollywood reporters were dubbing Quvenzhané Wallis “Little Q” at the Oscars last weekend. When 9-year-old Wallis corrected a reporter who insisted on calling her “Annie” by saying, “I’m not Annie. I’m Quvenzhané,” I had to cheer. In that moment, this little girl stood up for her identity and her culture. She told the reporter how to pronounce her name.
Throughout life, students will encounter enough people who mispronounce their names. As teachers, it is our responsibility to learn our students’ names and thus respect their identities and their cultures. It would be valuable to talk about Quvenzhané in class. Students can see her as an awesome role model and watch as she grows up in the spotlight.
Samsa is a freelance writer and teaches high school English in the south suburbs of Chicago.